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Monthly Gleanings: October 2009


By Anatoly Liberman

The British journals of the Victorian era are an inexhaustible source of elegant phrases, which arouse in me sometimes envy and sometimes amused wonderment. Therefore, while remaining true to that style, I will say that I follow the comments sent to this blog “with appreciative interest, leavened in some cases by knowledge” (a gem from an 1889 article).

Three linguists called geniuses. My innocent conclusion to the post on the origin of the words sea and ocean called forth a few humorous remarks. I said that, in my opinion, Jacob Grimm (1785-1853) was a genius, one of three linguists who deserved such an honor. So who are the other two? It is like the famous question about three common English words ending in -ry: the first two are angry and hungry—what’s the third? (Answer: The third does not exist; the question is a hoax.) But I really meant three. After Grimm came the Swiss Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), who, at the age of 21 (at this age, our undergraduates still need a spellchecker to tell them how to write a lot: one word or two?), offered a reconstruction of the Proto-Indo-European vowel system that changed Indo-European studies forever. Later he gave a series of lectures on general linguistics at the University of Geneva. After his death, his students, who had made copious notes (as students should), brought them out in book form. Since their publication, general linguistics and, to a certain extent, all the humanities have never been the same. Finally, N.S. Trubetzkoy (1890-1938), a Russian émigré, who taught most of the time he spent in the West at Vienna University, founded a branch of linguistics called phonology. His achievement influenced the development of 20th-century humanities almost as strongly as de Saussure’s. Close to those three are the German Eduard Sievers (1850-1932) and Trubetzkoy’s friend and collaborator Roman Jakobson (1896-1982). Jakobson also emigrated from Russia after the 1917 revolution, and following the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, where he lived, fled to Sweden and a short time later to the United States. This is my ranking of the greatest greats. I left out Jean F. Champollion (1790-1832), who deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics. He was certainly a genius, but not exactly a linguist in the modern sense of the word. Neither among the dead nor among the living can I find anyone approaching those three or five, but as I said in the post, linguistics is unlike music or mathematics, and the contours of genius there are blurry. Other nominations to this Hall (Club) of Fame are welcome.

No questions left behind? It depends. A journalism student sent me a series of questions (eight, to be precise) about the power of words, their change, and so on. She also explained that the answers were needed for a paper (she is not generic: there was a signature). I am accosted along these lines all the time, and I am sorry to inform the questioners that I refuse to write papers for students. I believe they should do their research themselves, and also I am afraid of disgracing myself. Rachmaninoff helped his niece (I think it was a niece) to harmonize a short piece for her studies at the Conservatory. The assignment received a C, the only time Rachmaninoff got a grade below an A or A+. He was tickled to death by the result, but I am touchy and do not want to get either the poor girl or myself into trouble.

Generic they/their. No one has asked me anything about this pronoun in recent weeks, but I have two examples in my archive that I find particularly silly. I think I have once quoted the first of them; however, a good joke bears repetition. “As someone who has been pro-life all their life, I believe life begins at the point of conception…” In principle, their with someone is fine, but the syntax is muddled, and the writer (this time a male) seems to have been stultified to the point at which “they” don’t dare use even the pronoun his and my about “themselves.” The second quotation stresses the importance of knowing everything about one’s bedfellows: “If your friend told you they were going to have sex with someone they ‘knew pretty well,’ you’d probably tell them to be careful.” Very reasonable. Always make it clear to those you sleep with on any occasion how wide-awake you are. The advice comes from the student paper of my university, which is predominantly interested in peace, sports, diversity, and condoms.

The change of er to ar in English and French. The change of er to ar in early Modern English is well-known, and I have touched on it in the past while answering a question from one of our correspondents. The anthologized examples are person ~ parson, university ~ varsity, clerk ~ Clark, Derby ~ Darby, and their likes. I even proposed a tentative explanation of the change. During the time Engl. er, ir, and ur merged into the vowel we now hear in fern, fir, and fur, in some words the group er, as I suggested, escaped the merger by going over to ar (hence parson, and so forth). Such movements regularly occur in phonetic systems. But the weak point of such explanations is that identical changes have been recorded in dissimilar languages. The question from our correspondent concerned the French family name Vardun. Assuming that it goes back to the place name Verdun (and there can probably be no doubt about it), are we justified in reconstructing the change of er to ar in French? The answer is yes. As early as the 13th century, rhymes of the sarge (the name of the fabric serge)/ large type and spellings like sarpent (= serpent) occur. Villon (the middle of the 15th century) rhymed terme and arme, among others. French historical linguists tend to account for the broadening of er to ar by the altered articulation of r. If they are right, an explanation of the same type may perhaps be sought for the change er to ar in English, but little is known about the pronunciation of Engl. r half a millennium ago, though its modern realizations, both southern British and American, are not ancient.

Cobbler and clobber. I received two comments on clobber, for which I am grateful. Here I would like to add something to what I said in my post. Skeat has a note on clopping, which I have known for a long time but did not include in the original discussion. Clop, a phonetic variant of clap, meant and still means (in dialects) “to adhere, cling to.” On the other hand, clop ~ klop is a sound imitative verb (to go clop-clop), related to Dutch kloppen and German klopfen “to knock.” Clob and clop may be variants of the same word, as are cob and cop in some of their meanings, while clobber “a black paste used by cobblers to fill up and conceal cracks in the leather of boots and shoes” seems to have something to do with “adhering.” If there were homonyms clop ~ clob meaning “adhere, stick to” and “knock,” they were probably often confused, and then clobber becomes rather transparent. Perhaps (if we accept the idea of metathesis, that is, a transposition of sounds in lob ~ obl) those words throw a sidelight on cobbler (the designation of someone who knocks on nails and makes parts of leather adhere to one another) and cobble.

Cockney. I will reproduce the question. “At the Greenhill Oak pub, Cuckney, Nottinghamshire, amongst other historical claims, notices state that in the reign of Edward III, the duke of Portland had incompetent men looking after the King’s horses (palfreys). They regularly shoed them badly, and the Duke was obliged to supply others costing 4 marks each. So Cuckney became used as a term for idiot, and changed to Cockney. Local tradition or just whimsy?” (I knew only shod as the past tense of the verb shoe, but the OED reassured me that shoed, though rare, also exists. This, however, is beside the point.) The story looks as though it were cut out of the whole cloth. The initial meaning of cockney was “pampered child, weakling,” not “simpleton, fool.” The Greenhill pub anecdote has no currency outside its walls, and if there were a grain of truth in it, etymologists would have investigated it long ago. Besides, cockney never had u in the first syllable. In my etymological dictionary, a long entry is devoted to the origin of this difficult word. It did indeed surface in the reign of Edward III and may have been borrowed from French. Its native homonym meant “cock’s egg” (that is, “a bad egg”).

Mirror. Is it connected with German Meer “sea”? No, it is not. Its root also occurs in admire and miracle, which means “to look.”

Opaque names. “Do we know when English people stopped recognizing the etymology of given names, that is, when did the English no longer recognize Edward, Edith, etc, as meaning ‘Wealth Guard,’ ‘War Wealth’, etc.?” The problem with such names is the same as with all so-called disguised compounds. As time goes on, their elements change phonetically and/or alter their meanings, so that their initial signification can no longer be recognized. Sometimes the change is slight. Those who rhyme Sunday with Grundy are one step away from sun + day. Monday is worse, because mon- is far removed from the modern pronunciation of moon. Cupboard is still worse, and if it were spelled cubbard (like Hubbard), no one would be able to guess its origin. Bon- in bonfire is a shortened form of bone, but who will believe it without consulting a dictionary? In Edward, -ward still resembles ward(en)/guard(ian), but ed- goes back to ead “property.” Since the word has not continued into Modern English, the sum has become obscure. Edith contains two lost words: ead, as in Edward, and guth “war, battle” (does the whole mean “war wealth”?). English is full of disguised compounds, including such short words as barn (originally “barley house”) and bridal, which at one time was not an adjective but a noun meaning “ale drunk at a wedding.” Names do not have to change so radically (compare Wolfgang), but they most often do.

I will answer some of the questions “left behind” on the last Wednesday (Othin’s/Odin’s day) of November, in the next set of “gleanings.”

Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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  4. John Cowan

    I believe that Wolfgang is one of the group of modern German names that remains unchanged because they are 18th- or 19th-century revivals. Helmut is another. But compare Etzli < Attila, a name that remained in the memory of legend if not in actual use.

  5. NEJ Carlson

    I think you should anoint three ‘Clydesdales’ of etymology who, though they lacked genius, made up the difference in output. Prolificacy deserves as much recognition brilliance, albeit of a rather different sort.

  6. Stephen Nemeth

    I was thinking about conceptual precision and wanted to ask you which factors in general lead to semantic convergence as opposed to diversification.

    For example, jealousy and envy have become synonymous in popular discourse. My understanding is that jealousy used to mean something you had and were unwilling to grant to another person or share, where envy described something someone else had which you wanted. This is not a popular distinction.

    This concept as applied to politics allows peculiar “vectors” or attentive exploitations for rhetoricians (and more pejoratively propagandists) to exploit ambiguity when they are interpreted by the audience. Other easy examples include “liberal” and “democrat”, “conservative” and “republican”. People will attempt to interpret polemic and fall victim to confirmation bias.

    Oddly it seems that where you’d expect semantic diversification in these instances to properly describe political positions more precisely, instead you find a lack of earnest discourse possibly fueled by a general apathy or cynicism towards the issues at hand. Consequentially we seem to grant political labels a certain degree of ambiguity pushing it in the very opposite direction.

    I was curious as to how this compared with other trends in conceptual precision regarding religion, slang, and more precise academic vernacular in your experience. Of particular interest is the term “God” after the segmentation of a religion, short lived cultural phrases and the words subsuming their initial meaning, and more rigidly held semantic constructs like chemical nomenclature. It seems each of these falls into a distinct domain wherein concepts need to be verbally communicated to a specific end, and each has a unique way of retaining or dismissing previous definitions and conceptual structures.

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